Tag Archives: product

Choosing a market for your software

The efficient market hypothesis states that “asset prices fully reflect all available information”. If the efficient market hypothesis is true, then you would expect actively managed funds (where fund managers pick the stocks) to do no better than index funds. That does seem to be the case:

“Numerous studies have shown that index funds, with their low costs and ability to closely mimic the returns of markets both broad and narrow, steadily outperform the returns of most actively managed funds.” Wall Street Journal

Unless you have some sort of insider knowledge (which it might be illegal to exploit), you might as well invest in index funds or get your cat to pick your stocks as pay someone else to do it.

But I am interested in a different sort of market efficiency. If you have to pick a vertical market to start a software business in, does it matter which vertical market you pick? If the market is perfectly efficient for businesses, then each vertical will have a level of competition proportional to the size of the market. In that case you should have an equal chance of success whether you decide to write a game, a developer tool, an anti-virus product or a CRM system.

From lots of reading and talking to other software business owners I have come to the conclusion that the market is highly inefficient for businesses. The market vertical you pick has a big effect on your chances of success. It seems to me that the three worst verticals are: games, developer tools and consumer mobile apps.

Games are fun! Writing a game sounds like a blast. Much more exciting than writing software for boring businesses. It has also been getting easier to write games due to the ever improving tools. Consequently, the market for games is totally saturated. The outlook for independent games developers looks grim. Today on the Steam platform there are 12,971 games listed. Even some of the big and famous games developers only seem to survive by forcing their staff to work vast amounts of unpaid overtime.

Pretty much every software entrepreneur has considered creating a software development tool at some point. I know I have. It is a market that we all understand (or think we do). But consequently it is saturated. Software developers are also pretty horrible customers. They are used to using lots of free software. And that tool you spent years developing? They think they can write something better over a weekend.

“Thousands of people used RethinkDB, often in business contexts, but most were willing to pay less for the lifetime of usage than the price of a single Starbucks coffee (which is to say, they weren’t willing to pay anything at all). … Developers love building developer tools, often for free. So while there is massive demand, the supply vastly outstrips it. This drives the number of alternatives up, and the prices down to zero.” Why RethinkDB failed

I wrote back in 2010 what a horrible market the iPhone app store is for developers. Since then the number of apps has increased tenfold to 2.2 million, the average paid app price is a measly $1.01 ($0.48 for games) and some 90%+ of apps are free or freemium.

You should be wary of markets with no competition. But the really high levels of competition in these three markets drives down prices and makes it very hard to get noticed. Obviously not everyone in these 3 markets is failing. It is possible to create a product in one of these markets and be wildly successful (Indie game developer Notch of Minecraft fame springs to mind). But I think the odds are very much stacked against you.

So what market should you pick to maximize your chances of commercial success? Aside from the obvious factors (e.g. something you are interested in and knowledgeable about, something that solves a real problem etc) I suggest avoiding anything considered ‘sexy’ by other developers.

Here is a radical idea – create a software product aimed at women. The vast majority of software is written by men and consequently it tends to cater for men. 50% of the world’s population are women and they buy software too!

Just because a product is not in a ‘sexy’ market doesn’t mean that it has to be boring to create. I have found plenty of interesting usability, optimization and visualization problems to solve while developing my own seating planning and visual planning software products.

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine you are talking to another software guy at a conference and explaining what you product does. If your imaginary software guy says “that sounds cool”, then it’s probably a tough market to create a commercial product in. But if they look a bit surprised or their eyes glaze over, then you might be on to something.

Things you don’t need for v1.0

Few people launch software products expecting them to fail. But many products do fail. I don’t have any figures, but I think I can fairly confidently state that more commercial software products fail than succeed. You think your product isn’t going to be one of the failures. But so does everyone else. The only way to find out for sure is to launch. The sooner you launch, the sooner you will find out. I have banged the drum for releasing early before, so I won’t labour it here. But it begs the question – how do I launch fast? What do I leave out? Based on my experiences of launching 3 software products, this is what I would leave out.

Polish

As developers we (hopefully) all want to do great work that we can feel proud of. But, as entrepreneurs, we need to be careful not to spend lots of time polishing something that might be a turd. So ship v1.0 before it is polished. Early adopters tend to be fairly forgiving of a few rough edges, if they are interested in the direction you are taking. I spent 6 months (part-time) working on the first version of my AdWords keyword tool. It flopped. So I shipped the first version of my visual planning software within a few weeks of writing the first line of code. It was pretty bare-bones and a bit slow for plans with hundreds of cards, but it was enough to demonstrate the basic concept.

Designer website

You don’t need a beautiful, state-of-the-art website to launch your product. My own table planner software had a pretty ropey website  (designed by me) for the first 10 years and it did fine. Just make sure the website clearly conveys what your product does.

Logo

You don’t need a professional logo for v1.0. The product name in coloured text using a font other than Arial will probably be fine. I did the initial logo for Hyper Plan in Microsoft Word Art in 10 minutes. Here it is in all it’s glory:

old Hyper Plan logo

I only paid a designer to come up with something better once I was sure it was worth my while.

DRM/Payment processing

I shipped the first version of Hyper Plan without even setting up licensing or payment processing. Every time you ran it, it just put up a window saying that it would expire on a certain date and that a new release would be available by that date. After that date it just stopped working.

Hyper Plan expired window

I only added licensing and payment processing once I had proved enough people were interested in the concept to make it worth my while. If you are going to take this approach, make sure you let people know that they will be expected to pay at some point.

Sophisticated pricing model

Ideally you want to segment your customers so you can charge more for the people who are prepared to pay more. But you probably don’t understand your market well enough to do this when you are starting out. So just pick a single price. I introduced segmented pricing for PerfectTablePlan in v4. Hyper Plan still has a single price.

Feature parity with your competitors

Trying to achieve feature parity with established competitors in v1.0 is a fool’s errand. Just pick one pain point that you think is not being well addressed and try to solve that. Make your lack of features a selling point by emphasizing how simple your product is to use.

Multi Platform

If it is going to take significant additional effort to release multi-platform, then just pick one platform to launch v1.0 on.

Extensive documentation

The first version of your product should be simple enough and well enough designed that it doesn’t need extensive documentation. My Hyper Plan software has been out for a year and it still only has a one page quick start guide.

Mailing list

Many people advocate building up a mailing list of interested people before you launch. It obviously helps a lot if you already have an audience in the market you are launching into. But, if you don’t, it takes significant time and effort to build that audience. I would rather put in that effort once I have something to show them.

Trademark

Why bother to spend time and money trademarking something if you don’t even know if anyone wants it?

Patent

I’m not a fan of software patents and I don’t have any patents after nearly 11 years in business. So I certainly wouldn’t waste time and money on a patent for v1.0.

Lawyers

If a bug in your software could kill someone or destroy their business, you should probably talk to a lawyer. Otherwise a boiler-plate end user licence agreement is probably fine for v1.0.

Company

I did create a limited company before I launched my first product to get a bit of extra legal protection. But its not strictly necessary (in the UK at least).

Trade-offs

It’s all a tradeoff. Obviously it is better to have a beautiful website than an ugly one. But is it worth spending lots of time and money on designing a beautiful website for an unproven product?

The best approach depends very much on your market and circumstances. If you are a big player with lots of money and reputation, then much of the above may not apply. If you are selling web design products, you had better have a pretty slick looking website for v1.0. If you are selling aircraft avionics systems then I hope v1.0 of your product is pretty polished.

Software products are *not* passive income

Some people dream of creating a ‘passive’ income that generates money on auto-pilot while they go and learn tango in Argentina, or whatever their chosen path to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is. In my experience, a software product is a long way from being a passive income. I know lots of people who own software product businesses. I don’t think any of them regard it as a passive income either.

While on holiday I’ve run my own business from a laptop in less than an hour per day. But the business would start to suffer if I did this for more than a few months. Even if you are not adding new features, software products require significant effort to maintain. Sales queries need answering, customers need support and bugs need fixing. New operating systems will often break things in otherwise stable products (particularly on Mac OS X). And there is always admin stuff to do: tax, accounts and a hundred other things. Marketing also requires ongoing effort, whether it be in the form of A/B testing, newsletters, SEO, PPC or blogging. If you aren’t continually improving your product and marketing, then harder working competitors are soon going to start eating your lunch. You can hire people to do the work for you. But then you have to train and manage those people. And the most capable people have a habit of going off to start their own companies.

There may be some products that can generate passive incomes. Perhaps ebooks, training videos and mobile apps. But I expect they still need significant amounts of ongoing marketing effort if they are going to earn more than pocket money. Remember – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…

Training course update

I ran my second ‘Start your own software business’ course over the weekend of 22/23 March. Here is what some of the attendees had to say:

“I thought I knew most things about setting up and running an ISV but Andy filled in all the gaps and taught me stuff I hadn’t even thought about! I would, without hesitation, recommend this course (which is great value) to anyone thinking of starting a small software company or even an existing company that wants to ensure they give their business the best chance for success. Well done Andy!”
Anonymous (gainfully employed)

Roger Pearson“PC Pro magazine (not easy to impress) gave PerfectTablePlan a glowing review. That gives you some idea of Andy’s talent for programming and marketing. His weekend training program allows the attendees to garner his expertise for themselves and their software projects. Andy knows his subject – his experience is extensive, practical and hard-earned. I have run 2 successful small software business in the past. By attending his course I wanted to find out from someone who was actually doing it today, how I could apply techniques and best practice to my next software project. Did I succeed? Without a doubt. Andy was meticulous in his planning of the event and thorough in his presentation. I couldn’t ask for more. Top marks. I recommend Andy’s course to anyone venturing into the world of running a small software business.”
Roger Pearson

Derek Ekins“I recently attended Andy Brice’s “Start your own software business” course. Andy teaches some very practical skills to evaluate your idea, find if there is a market and launch your product. Behind most of the topics Andy had a story of how this particular lesson was learnt and how he has successfully implemented it. I now feel I am equipped with some practical knowledge of how to launch a software product. Thanks Andy.”
Derek Ekins

I will be following all their progress with interest.

I hope to run the course again in 2014. If you are interested in attending, please fill in the form on the training page.

Training course update

I ran my first ‘Start your own software business’ course over the weekend of 23/24 November. It was tiring but enjoyable and, overall, I am very happy with how it went. I think the balance of presentation, questions, exercises and discussions was about right. Thankfully everything went smoothly with the logistics of room, meals, accommodation etc.

Here is what some of the attendees had to say:

Pavol Rovensky“To run your own software business is an aspiration of every programming enthusiast and many professional programmers. Most of them fail without knowing “WHY?”. I’ve known Andy Brice for many years and have met him at several conferences and heard  a lot about his product and working habits. When the information about this course appeared it was the easiest decision in my professional career to sign up. The course itself is delivered with passion and ease, yet the information content is incredibly rich.  The course covers all aspects of Starting a software business and Andy continuously amends the presentation with elements of his own experience and available data from other people. None of the aspects of starting a software business is left uncovered. He definitively gives an answer to aspiring programmers “HOW?” to start and avoid the failure; or fail fast and learn quickly.”
Pavol Rovensky, www.hexner.co.uk

Kevin Horgan“Andy’s ability to imprint the wisdom he has gained through successfully starting and running his own software business is amazing. The course covered a lot of material very quickly and effectively with plenty of time to ask concrete questions, all of which Andy comfortably answered from his experience in the field. I feel I have a much better focus now on where I need to put my time and energy to build a successful software company. The course venue, facilities and overall organisation were also excellent, from booking through to ensuring we finished on time so I could catch my plane. I highly recommend this course if you plan to start your own software company.”
Kevin Horgan, www.balancedcode.com

Anthony Hay“I’m a programmer and I’ve been an employee in other people’s software businesses all my working life. For some time I’ve wanted to create my own product to sell but I’ve found it difficult to evaluate the various ideas I’ve had and get started. Andy’s course is broad and covers all aspects of starting a software business, but the parts covering the early stages of product development were especially useful to me. Andy is a great communicator and I highly recommend this course.”
Anthony Hay, howtowriteaprogram.blogspot.com

“I was lucky enough to find out about Andy’s course in time, and wasn’t sure if it would help me figure out how to work for myself as an independent software vendor — I have the answer now — and it would be an understatement to say it pointed me in the right direction. I now see the possibilities, and the course has given me important insights into how I might go about the transition from ‘working for the man’ to starting my own micro ISV. If you get the chance, do go on the course. It’s well worth it.”
Jason Spashett, jason.spashett.com

“If you’re starting a software business, give yourself a big unfair advantage and sign up for Andy Brice’s course. Andy has spent eight years investigating numerous cul-de-sacs, all so that you don’t have to. Whether you’re working with desktop or web, selling to consumer, enterprise or developer markets, there are pearls of wisdom in there for everyone. Benefit from the advice of someone who’s been there in the trenches – it’s possibly the best investment in your fledging business you can make.”
Justin Worrall

I would like to say a big thank you to the attendees of v1.0 the course. I shall be following their progress with interest.

I hope to run the course again in 2014. If you are interested in attending, please fill in the form on the training page.

3 practical tips for finding software product ideas

software product ideasToo many software products fail because no-one bothered to do basic market research. This is a guest post from Edmundo López B. with some useful advice on finding a viable market niche before you start creating your product.

The process of building software for a niche market is more or less well documented online. The basic workflow I found is (for example here or here):

  • choose some niche (with potential)
  • find out the problems that you can solve in that niche
  • create a product to solve the problem
  • sell it
  • enjoy life :-)

Here are three things you can look for when asking people about their problems.

Ask for the painful tasks that they do, not for the problem you can help with

The people I first talked to were persons that I already knew, so my pitch for them was: “Hello. As you know I’m a software engineer. I’m looking for problems to solve. I want to build software and sell it. And, if I solve a real problem, I’m sure people will pay for it. I was wondering if there is some problem in your business where you need some help. I could create some software, solve your problem and then sell it. I can help you with your problem and you will help me to find my problem.”

The first response was always positive however, everybody I talked to started to look at a problem they thought could be solved by a computer. The problem with that is that people’s vision of computers is very limited. First, some people limit the software I can build to desktop applications or some platform they know well. Second, they try to find problems to give you, and not the problems they really have. For example: one of my interviewees said to me that she needed some kind of tracking system for the expenses of her very small business (a small farm producing eggs). I told her: “Wow, that sounds like a problem I could solve, how are you solving that problem right now?.” She told me: “I’m not, I’m busy bootstrapping the whole business right now. But later I’d certainly like to have something for that.” Of course, if she is not solving that right now, then that is not a real problem. She sort of made that problem up to give an answer to my question.

People have real problems but sometimes they don’t even know they could tackle that problem with a computer. So, the lesson here is that you have to get them to tell you their real problems. Even the ones they don’t think that could be solved by a computer. You are the computer expert, not the people you interview, so you need to find out the real problem out there. Also it doesn’t have to be a problem from the future, it has to be an actual problem now. The question that I found works best is the following: Tell me about your day and what activities are the most tedious and boring to do, but do not add much value to your business. (I’m not the first to come up with this question, but I don’t remember the source, sorry.)

Look for their existing solution and ask what is wrong with it (the Excel spreadsheet)

From the people I interviewed, 2 of them had an Excel spreadsheet that solved their problem in a way that was not the best, but did the job. The third one had plans to solve her problem with an Excel spreadsheet in the future. Joel Spolsky talks about how Excel and other horizontal software are nothing more than glorified data structures. It is true, you can do almost anything involving simple mathematics and tables of data within Excel. Keeping track of costs, sales, etc. are a perfect match for it.

The common engineer will say: “If there is already a solution for that, why roll my own?” The entrepreneur will just ask what isn’t possible with the existing solution and think of ways of improving that. The existence of the Excel spreadsheet is a clear sign that there is a computing problem that can be solved in a better way. I can give you an example. Two of the persons I interviewed showed me their Excel spreadsheets (an architect and an event manager). A common problem was being able to slightly change some prices in a budget and immediately be able to show the old and the new price to the client.  This kind of information is gold to the person creating an application. This is something they use, and if you can save them time using it, you can add value to their businesses.

If there is no Excel spreadsheet, I just try to find software on the net that does what they need. If there is something really good on the market, I don’t want to compete with them. If you are wondering why didn’t I let them do the search, the answer is simple: they do the search using the traditional channels, colleagues and networks of peers; I focus on the Google search. I’m a developer, I can Google for software in a much better way than they do. It took me an hour to do a research on software for architects. Then you can explain to them the pros and cons of the solutions, help them to sign up for a free trial and tell them if their set-up is supported. The golden rule is to be really helpful. It is true that you might end up finding a customer for someone else. But if there is not a good solution, you are finding a niche for yourself.

Do some simple mathematics to see if the problem is worth solving

My last tip is about the financial aspect. Let us say that you finally found a problem that you can solve. It is painful and there is no solution in the market that can solve it in the way people in that niche want. The question to ask now is: “What are people willing to pay for something like this?” I cannot give you an exact answer but I can tell you that it depends on the value you add to your client’s business.

What you want to know is:

  • How much time does it take monthly to do the task you are solving?
  • How much money could be earned in the same amount of time?
  • How much faster would it be to do the same task with your solution?

The basic idea is to convert saved time to saved dollars. Of course, if your solution saves dollars monthly, it becomes an investment for the business. My limited experience showed me that saving people money and pain gets them really excited.

I can give you an example from my interview with the architect. Once again, the problem was something he was solving with an Excel spreadsheet. I asked him how much time did it take and he told me at least three days. Three days of architect’s time means a lot of money. So, if you can help him solve the problem in one day, you are not only saving his money but avoiding pain (because the problem was painful to solve, but  it needed to be done).

Conclusion

Now it’s up to you. Try to put these in practice, and find a niche to build your first product. Please share your thoughts and remarks in the comments.

Edmundo López B. is a PhD student in computer science at the University of Geneva and an entrepreneur in the making. He loves building things, learning new stuff, and  playing classical guitar. He decided to make the jump directly from school to entrepreneurship. He blogs at edmundo.lopezbobeda.net.

13 ways to fail at commercial software

  1. Don’t bother with market research, because you just know lots of people are itching to buy your new product.
  2. Only release the product once it is perfect. However long that takes.
  3. Go into a market with very strong competition and compete with them head-on, because you only need a measly 1% of this market to get rich.
  4. Go into a market with no competition. How hard can creating a new market and educating all the potential customers be?
  5. Only think about marketing once the code is nearly complete.
  6. Write software for people who can’t or won’t buy software (e.g. 10 year olds, prisoners, Linux fanatics, people in developing countries, developers).
  7. Don’t worry about marketing, because good software sells itself.
  8. Concentrate on the technology and impressing other developers.
  9. Don’t listen to what your customers say, because you know best.
  10. Don’t worry about usability. It took you thousands of hours to write the software. Surely the customer can spend an hour or two learning to use it.
  11. Embrace bleeding-edge technology.
  12. Don’t worry about backups, because modern harddisks are very reliable.
  13. Don’t even try. Just give your software away for free.

Did I miss any?

Product ideas wanted

Joannes Vermorel’s guest post ‘3 Low-Competition Niches In Retail Software’ got quite a lot of interest. I also have various ideas for software-based products and services that I am never likely to develop due to a lack of time, money, skills or interest. I’m sure many of you reading this do as well. It seems a shame to leave all these ideas gathering dust when there is someone out there just about to waste a huge amount of energy writing the 2,133th Twitter app (and counting) due to lack of a better idea.

So I am inviting you to email in promising but neglected software-based product and service ideas so that I can publish the best ones here. Maybe it is a tool you would like to use or something that you think might be a good business but, either way, you are never going to implement it. They can be ideas for: enterprise SAAS, Windows programming libraries, iPad games, development tools  – anything with a significant software component. It doesn’t have to be a radically new idea, it could be just a significantly different take on an existing idea. Hopefully some budding entrepreneurs will pick up some of these ideas and run with them. Note: By sending me your idea you are giving me permission to put it into the public domain for anyone to see.

Please email them to me at andy at oryxdigital at com with the subject line “product idea” by 12-Sep-11. They should be in plain text and conform to the following basic template:

——————————————————————————

Title:
A one sentence description of product.

Description:
A longer description of the product. Ideally 1 or 2 paragraphs.

Customer:
Who you think the typical customer would be.

Price point:
What you think the software would sell for.

Platform:
Windows, Mac, iPad, iPhone, web etc.

Competitors:
Closest competitors (URLs ideally).

Differentiation:
How your idea is different to the competitors.

Challenges:
Any particular challenges in creating or marketing this product.

Commercial potential:
What commercial potential does this product have? How many people do you think it could sustain full time?

Why not you?:
If it is such as great idea, why haven’t you created it?

Market research:
How much market research you have done. ‘None’ is an acceptable answer.

Contact:
(optional) Your contact details, if anyone wants to discuss the idea further. Can be an email, hyperlink, twitter account etc. It is also fine if you want to use a pseudonym or be anonymous.

——————————————————————————

For example:

Title:
Qt GUI checker.

Description:
Every time I create a new Windows using the Qt application framework I have to manually check all the controls have:

  • tooltips
  • non-conflicting keyboard shortcuts
  • the correct left-right and top-to-bottom tab order
  • correctly capitalised text
  • etc

It is quite tedious when you do a lot of GUI development.

Customer:
Qt developers.

Price point:
I’d pay $30.

Platform:
Windows, Mac, Linux and other Qt platforms.

Competitors:
None that I know of.

Differentiation:
QtDesigner lets you do these tasks manually, but I don’t know of any software that can do this automatically.

Challenges:
I don’t think it would be that difficult. You just need to parse the XML in a .ui file and present the results in a legible form.

Commercial potential:
Limited. Only of interest to Qt developers. Many people are using Qt for free, and people using free tools generally don’t like to pay for add-ons. It might make a good student or open source project though.

Why not you?:
I’ve got too much else on my plate! Also I am not convinced about the commercial potential.

Market research:
No formal research, but I’ve been using Qt for over 10 years.

Contact:
http://www.successfulsoftware.net .

3 Low-Competition Niches In Retail Software

This is a guest post by Joannes Vermorel, founder of the Lokad Forecasting Service.

Software developers seem to be herd animals. They like to stay very close to each other. As a result, the marketplace ends up riddled with hundreds of ToDo lists while other segments are deserted, despite high financial stakes. During my routine browsing of software business forums, I have noticed that the most common answer to Why the heck are you producing yet another ToDo list? is the desperately annoying Because I can’t find a better idea.

This is desperately annoying because the world is full (saturated even) with problems so painful that people or companies would be very willing to pay to relieve the pain, even if only a little. A tiny fraction of these problems are addressed by the software industry (such as the need for ToDo lists), but most are just lacking any decent solution.

Hence, I detail below 3 low-competition software niches in retail. Indeed, after half a decade of running sales forecasting software company Lokad, I believe, despite the potential survivor bias, that I have acquired insights on a few B2B markets close to my own. Firstly I will address a few inevitable questions:

Q: If you have uncovered such profitable niches, why don’t you take over them yourself?
A: Mostly because running a growing business already takes about 100% of my management bandwidth.

Q: If these niches have little competition, entry barriers must be high?
A: Herding problems aside, I believe not.

Q: Now these niches have been disclosed, they will be swarmed over by competitors, right?
A: Odds are extremely low on that one. The herd instinct is just too strong.

Q. Do I have to pay you if I use one of your ideas?
A. No, I am releasing this into the public domain. I expect no payment if you get rich (unless you want to!) and accept no liability if you fail miserably. Execution is everything.  And don’t trust a random stranger on the Internet – do your own market research.

Before digging into the specifics of those niches, here are a couple of signs that I have noticed to be indicators of desperate lack of competition:

  • No one bothers about doing even basic SEO.
  • No prices on display.
  • No one offers self-signup – you have to go through a sales rep.
  • Little in the way of online documentation or screenshots are available.

However, lack of competition does not mean lack of competitors. It’s just not the sort of competition that keeps you up at night. Through private one-to-one discussions with clients of those solutions, here is the typical feedback I get:

  • Licenses are hideously expensive.
  • Setup takes months.
  • Upgrade takes months (and is hideously expensive).
  • Every single feature feels half-baked.

By way of anecdotal evidence – during a manufacturer integration with our forecasting technology a few months ago at Lokad, we discovered that the client had been charged $2,000 by its primary software provider in order to activate Remote Desktop on the Windows Server where the software was installed. Apparently, this was well within the norm of their usual fees for the inventory management system in place.

Granted, just being cheaper is usually not a good place to be in the market. Yet, when a competitor’s software is designed in such a way that it takes a small army of consultants to get it up and running, they can’t just lower their license fees to match yours – assuming that your design is not half-baked too. The competition would have to redesign their solution from scratch, and give up on their consultingware revenues. So you are in a great position to drive competition crazy.

With a market managing over two-thirds of the US gross domestic product, one would expected retail be saturated by fantastic software products. It turns out this is not the case. Not by a long shot – except eCommerce (e.g. online shopping carts) which attracts a zillion developers for no good reason.

Some salient aspects of the retail software market:

  1. Most retailers are already equipped in basic stuff such as point-of-sale, inventory management and order management systems. So you don’t have to deliver that yourself. On the contrary, you should rely on the assumption that such software is already in place.
  2. As far the Lokad experience goes with its online sales forecasting service, retailers are not unwilling to disclose their data to a 3rd party over the Internet. It takes trust and trust takes time. Interestingly enough, at Lokad we do sign NDAs, but rather infrequently. We are not unwilling, but most retailers (even top 100 worldwide ones) simply don’t even bother.
  3. Retailers have a LOT of data, and yet unlike banks, they have little talented manpower to deal with it. Many retail businesses are highly profitable though and could afford to pay for this kind of manpower, but as far I can tell, it’s just not part of the usual Western retail culture. Talents go to management, not to the trenches.

Niche 1: EOQ (Economic Order Quantity) calculator

Retailers know they need to keep their stocks as low as possible, while preserving their service levels (aka rate of non stock-outs), see this safety stock tutorial for more details. If the marginal ordering cost for replenishment was zero, then retailers would produce myriads of incremental replenishment orders, precisely matching their own sales. This is not the case. One century ago, F. W. Harris introduced the economic order quantity (EOQ) which represents the optimal quantity to be ordered at once by the retailer, when friction factors such as the shipping cost are taken into account. Obviously, the Wilson Formula (see Wikipedia for details) is an extremely early attempt at addressing the question. It’s not too hard to see that many factors are not accounted for, such as non-flat shipping costs, volume discounts, obsolescence risks …etc.

Picking the right quantity to order is obviously a fundamental question for each retailer performing an inventory replenishment operation. Yet, AFAIK, there is no satisfying solution available on the market. ERP systems just graciously let the retailer manually enter the EOQ along with other product settings. Naturally, this process is extremely tedious, firstly because of the sheer number of products, secondly because whenever a supply parameter is changing, the retailer has to go through all the relevant products all over again.

The EOQ calculator would typically come as multi-tenant web app. Main features being:

  • Product and supplier data import from any remotely reachable SQL database[1].
  • Web UI for entering / editing EOQ settings.
  • EOQ calculation engine.
  • Optional EOQ export back to the ERP.

Pricing guestimate: Charge by the number of products rather than by the number of users. I would suggest to start around $50/month for small shops and go up to $10k/month for large retail networks.

Gut feeling: EOQ seemingly involves a lot of expert knowledge (my take: acquiring this knowledge is a matter of months, not years). So there is an opportunity to position yourself as an expert here, which is a good place to be as it facilitates inbound marketing and PR with specialized press. Also, EOQ can be narrowed down to sub-verticals in retail (e.g. textiles) in case competition grows stronger.

Niche 2: Supplier scorecard manager

For a retailer, there are about 3 qualities that define a good supplier: lowest prices, shortest shipment delays, best availability levels (aka no items out-of-stock delaying the shipments). Better, sometime exclusive, suppliers give a strong competitive edge to a retailer. Setting aside payment terms and complicated discounts, comparing supplier prices is simple, yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg. If the cheapest supplier doesn’t deliver half of the time, “savings” will turn into very expensive lost sales. As far I can observe, beyond pricing, assessing quality of the suppliers is hard, and most retailers suffer an ongoing struggle with this issue.

An idea that frequently comes to the mind of retailers is to establish contracts with suppliers that involve financial penalties if delays or availability levels are not enforced. In practice, the idea is often impractical. Firstly, you need to be Walmart-strong to inflict any punitive damage on your suppliers without simply losing them. Secondly, shipping delays and availabilities needs to be accurately monitored, which is typically not the case.

A much better alternative, yet infrequently implemented outside the large retail networks, consists of establishing a supplier scorecard based on the precise measuring of both lead times (i.e. the duration between the initial order and the final delivery) and of the item availability. The scorecard is a synthetic, typically 1-page, document refreshed every week or every month that provides the overall performance of each supplier. The scorecard includes a synthetic score like A (10% best performing suppliers), B and C (10% worst performing suppliers). Scorecards are shared with the suppliers themselves.

Instead of punishing bad suppliers, the scorecard helps them in realizing there is a problem in the first place. Then, if the situation doesn’t improve after a couple of months, it helps the retailer itself to realize the need for switching to another supplier…

The scorecard manager web app would feature:

  • Import of both purchase orders and delivery receipts (this might be 2 distinct systems). [2]
  • Consolidation of per-supplier lead time and availability statistics.
  • One-page scorecard reports with 3rd party access offered to the suppliers.

Pricing guestimate: Charge based on the number of suppliers and the numbers of orders to be processed. Again, the number of users having access to the system might not be a reliable indicator. Starting at $50/month for small shops up to $10k/month for large retail networks.

Gut feeling: By positioning your company as intermediate between retailers and their suppliers, you benefit from a built-in viral marketing effect, which is rather unusual in B2B. On the other hand, there isn’t that much expert knowledge (real or assumed) in the software itself.

Niche 3: Dead simple sales analytics

Retail is a fast-paced business, and a retailer needs to keep a really close eye on its sales figures in order to stay clear of bankruptcy. Globally, the software market is swarming with hundreds of sales analytics tools, most of them being distant competitors of Business Objects acquired by SAP years ago. However, the business model of most retailers is extremely simple and straightforward, making all those Business Intelligence tools vast overkill for small and medium retail networks.

Concepts that matter in retail are: sales per product, product categories and points of sale. That’s about it. Hence, all it should take to have a powerful sales visualization tool setup for a retailer should be access to the 2 or 3 SQL tables of the ERP defining products and transactions; and the rest being hard-coded defaults.

Google Analytics would be an inspiring model. Indeed, Google does not offer to webmasters any flexibility whatsoever in the way the web traffic is reported; but in exchange, setting-up Google Analytics requires no more than merely cutting-and-pasting a block of JavaScript into your web page footer.

Naturally it would be a web app, with the main features being:

  • Product and sales data import from any remotely reachable SQL database.[2]
  • Aggregate sales per day/week/month.
  • Aggregate per product/product category/point-of-sales.
  • A Web UI ala Google Analytics, with a single time-series graph per page.

Pricing guestimate: Regular per-usage fee, a la Salesforce.com. Starting at $5/user/month basic features to $100/user/month for more fancy stuff.

Gut feeling: probably the weakest of the 3 niches, precisely because it has too much potential and is therefore doomed to attract significant attention later on. Also, achieving a wow effect on first contact with the product will probably be critical to turn prospects into clients.

Market entry points

Worldwide, there are plenty of competitors already for these niches. Yet, again, this does not mean much. Firstly because retail is so huge, secondly because it’s a heavily fragmented market anyway. First, there are big guys like SAP, JDA or RedPrairie, typically way too expensive for anything but large retail networks. Second, there are hundreds of mid-market ERPs, typically with a strong national (or even regional) focus. However, those ERPs don’t delve into fine-grained specifics of retail, as they are too busy already dealing with a myriad of feature requests for their +20 modules (accounting, billing, HR, payments, shipping … etc). Hence, there is a lot of space for razor-sharp web apps that focus on one, and only one, aspect of the retail business. Basically single-minded, uncompromising obsession with one thing, leaving aside all other stuff to either ERPs or other web apps.

In order to enter the market, the good news is that mid-size retailers are pretty much everywhere. So you can just use a tiny bit of networking to get in touch with a couple of neighbouring businesses, even if you don’t have that much of a network in the first place. Then, being razor-sharp in a market where very little online content is available, offers you a cheap opportunity at doing some basic SEO based on the very specific questions your software is addressing.

Q: I am interested, I have questions, can I ask you those questions?
A: Naturally, my rate is 200€/h (no just kidding). Yes, email me.

[1] Don’t even bother about providing a super-complicated setup wizard. Just offer a $2k to $5k setup package that includes the ad-hoc handful of SQL lines to match the existing data of the retailer. We are already using this approach at Lokad with Salescast. Alternatively, we also offer an intermediate SQL schema, if the retailer is willing to deal with the data formatting on its own.

[2] Again, I suggest an approach similar to the one of Salescast by Lokad: don’t even try to robotize data import, just design the software in such a way that adding a custom adapter is cheap.

Joannes Vermorel is the founder of Lokad, company motto “You send data, we return forecasts”. Lokad won the first Windows Azure award from Microsoft in 2010, out of 3000 companies applying worldwide. He has a personal blog that mostly deals with cloud computing matters.

Success is always one feature away

In my consulting and various other dealings with aspiring microISVs, I notice certain recurring patterns. One of the most common is the belief that it is just one missing feature that is holding back a product from the commercial success it deserves. As soon as that feature is coded the sales are going to come pouring in! When they don’t, then maybe it was that other missing feature that our competitor has. It is a horizon that keeps receding until you run out of money or enthusiasm. But, in my experience, poor sales are almost always due to insufficient marketing. A fact that is borne out by these 13 case studies. It doesn’t matter how great your software is if no-one know about it, or if you can’t persuade them to try it when they do find out about it.

It isn’t surprising that microISVs fixate on features. MicroISVs tend to come from a programming background and learn marketing  on the job (I have yet to meet a microISV who started off in marketing and taught themself programming). Features and coding are what we like to do best and it feels like ‘real work’. But all too often the warm embrace of an IDE is just an excuse to stay in our comfort zone. Of course, features are important. No features = no product. But, if you have got low traffic to your website and/or you are doing a lousy job of communicating with people that arrive at your site, then adding more features really isn’t going to help much. If you are in a hole, stop digging. Successful marketing is about being different from your competitors. You can even make a virtue of your lack of features. If you are competing against more feature-rich competitors, then emphasize the simplicity and ease-of-use of your product instead. It certainly seems to work for 37Signals.

Marketing can seem like a very alien discipline for someone from a programming background. But you can learn it like any other skill. There is loads of great information out there, for example Eric Sink’s marketing for geeks. Also, some elements of online marketing are actually quite technical with plenty of opportunites for number crunching. Analytics, A/B testing and Adwords will give you more data than you know what to do with. This can give programmers a considerable advantage over people from a more traditional marketing background, many of whom don’t seem to be able to handle anything more complicated than a 2×2 matrix. You don’t have to be a marketing genius, you just need to be better than your competitors (in the same way that you don’t need to be able to run faster than a lion to survive a lion attack, you just need to be able to run faster than the next guy). Given that your competitors are likely to be other programmers (who are probably also not doing enough marketing) or people from a marketing background (who don’t really understand software and are probably more interested in long lunches) that may not be as hard as you think.